Tiffany Hammond Speaks on Intersectionality of Neurodiversity and Race

On Tuesday, April 16, author and advocate Tiffany Hammond delivered a talk on neurodiversity and its relationship to race. She drew on her own experience as an autistic Black adult and a mother of children with autism to create a holistic understanding of the intersections between various aspects of identity and oppression.

After being introduced by Associate Professor of Educational Studies Jennifer Bradley, Hammond began by explaining the importance of using an intersectional and multifaceted lens to understand identity, referencing the complex identities that she and her family hold.

“To be Black and disabled means that I belong to two unique and rich cultures, separate identities that I claim wholeheartedly but live within at the same time,” she said. “Even if someone were to look at me just as being Black or just being autistic or just being all these other things, I’m still everything all the time.”

According to Hammond, each aspect of identity, including neurodiversity and race, can combine in ways that create unique forms of marginalization, making intersectionality a necessity for effective advocacy.

 “How are you supposed to know what oppressive identities intersect and create new oppressed experiences if you have not explored what makes our lived experiences different from dominant cultures?” she asked.

Hammond expanded on the importance of intersectionality through a concrete example: non-speaking autistic individuals, such as her own son Aidan, in comparison with speaking autistic individuals.

“Speech therapists in both the school setting and the community did not know how to help our son. Teachers did not know either, and being in a community with other autistic adults online was also unhelpful,” she said. “They would often equate their experiences of going nonverbal for certain moments in time and then being able to pick back up with speech to my son who never speaks.”

One notable difference between the experience of Hammond’s son and that of speaking autistic individuals is that while speaking autistic individuals are understood to be competent and often receive empathy, those who never speak are often perceived as incapable of learning.

“With other therapists and other professionals that [my son] was seeing, [I was saying] I feel like he has the ability to learn something, and they were saying [they] don’t think he needs to do this because it’s not like he’s going to go to college,” Hammond said.

This assumption that Aidan could not learn led to various adults in his life, including teachers, denying Aidan age-appropriate opportunities to learn.

 “He was eleven and he was still doing board books,” Hammond said. “He was eleven and [teachers] were still [telling him] to try to say ball.”

Once Hammond began to provide her son with more age-appropriate experiences, his growth and learning were dramatic.

“We started podcasts, books that were of interest for kids his age, and audiobooks exposing him to all the things that they weren’t really exposing him to because they felt like he wasn’t capable of learning or listening,” she said. “And that’s when we started to notice that he knows so much. And he’s showing us so much.”

In addition to the ableism that Aidan faced, Hammond noted that her family’s Black identity also led to them facing significant systemic racism.

“Black students and families are dealing with additional pressures and stressors that white students and families won’t,” she explained. “Stress compounds because the children will take longer to grasp the lessons [their parents] themselves were taught when they were young. ”

According to Hammond, interactions with police officers in particular have been quite dangerous for her sons, especially considering their neurodiversity.

“They have had law enforcement encounters, probably more than the average adult white male has. They are fifteen and seventeen,” she said. “I have to figure out how to get them to understand that looking at the eyes of the officer might seem like a challenge. Don’t fidget so much, don’t turn around, hold your hands a certain way. Don’t make sudden movements.”

Due to all of this, Hammond believes that many forms of oppression have significant commonalities. Indeed, she highlighted how ableism can often be inherently rooted in racist systems, even when experienced by white individuals and families.

“They are closer to experiencing life as Black people know it,” she said. “The ableism they face is born of the racism we have been facing for generations.”
An interview following the talk with The Phoenix can be found here.

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